The Middle Ages had the Black Death, 1918 had the influenza epidemic. But the scourge sweeping the land at the end of the 19th century? Masturbation.
We're not exaggerating. According to the medical minds of the time, "No single vice causes so much mental and physical debility ... It impairs the intellect, weakens the memory, debases the mind, ruins the nervous system, exhausts the vital power and destroys body, mind and soul." They thought masturbation could result in insanity, impotence, epilepsy and "puny offspring."
Fortunately for sufferers, doctors back then had almost as many cures as there were symptoms ... cures that helped shape the world you live in. Like ...
The process of taking a male baby and cutting off the skin around the head of the penis is common in the U.S. now (about 75 percent of American males are circumcised), but that wasn't always the case. So why did it become standard? Partly to keep American boys from touching their wieners.
It's fairly recent, too. As recently as the 1860s, circumcision was still primarily thought of as a "Jewish rite," something that for non-Jews would be done as a last resort in response to infections around the foreskin and other medical problems. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, America wound up in a frenzy over the problem of masturbation that sounds suspiciously similar to the fears about recreational drugs a half century later -- masturbation was spoken of as a new, addictive fad among our children that doctors said could cause everything from psychosis to epilepsy.
While some might say hallucinating Megan Fox and getting the shakes can only be a positive.
And then, somehow, they decided that circumcision would prevent masturbation (because no Jewish man had ever been caught masturbating up to that point, we guess?). The benefits were claimed to be twofold:
First, it supposedly reduced the secretions that would get inflamed around the foreskin and thus get young boys in the habit of rubbing themselves. Seriously, books at the time treat genital itching as a gateway drug to masturbation -- a 1914 public school sex ed manual says keeping kids from scratching their junk is the only way to keep them out of the insane asylum, where all masturbators end up.
Masturbators and early 21st century rappers.
Second, many doctors thought that removing the foreskin made masturbation much more difficult (which, as about half of our readers know, it totally doesn't). By the way, that 1895 medical journal suggests that another way to prevent boys from masturbating is to sever the fucking nerves to the penis, so there just wouldn't be any feeling there at all.
On the plus side, you'd make a damn good living in bar bets.
Again, it makes perfect sense if you are under the impression that masturbation is a drug 10 times more dangerous than heroin. It's a telling sign of how villainous masturbation was that "Jewish penis surgery" sounded like a sensible alternative, particularly since the 1860s weren't exactly an enlightened time in Anglo-Jewish relations (it was around then that Union general and soon-to-be president Ulysses S. Grant signed the order expelling all Jews from some Southern states). And yet, by 1895 this "Jewish rite" had become the physician's "closest friend and ally" in the battle against masturbation.
Other suggestions: Setting the fingers on fire and spinning the balls around like a dreidel.
Anti-masturbation crusader John Harvey Kellogg then came along and upped the ante by insisting that circumcision should be performed with no anesthesia. Why? So the kid would feel the pain and remember it the next time he was tempted to "self-abuse":
"The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed."
Actually, we reckon associating the penis with pain would lead to a different conclusion entirely.
Oh, and the follow-up to the procedure isn't creepy at all, saying the patient ...
"... should be so carefully surrounded by vigilance that he cannot possibly transgress without detection. If he is only partially watched, he soon learns to elude observation, and thus the effect is only to make him cunning in his vice."
And yes, this is Kellogg of "Kellogg's cereal" fame. Which brings us to ...
Kellogg, as you can tell, was really into keeping kids from masturbating. An entire segment of the food industry would be born as a result of this crusade.
At some point, masturbation experts decided that a major culprit in provoking the urge was diet. Certain foods were "excitants" known to fire the blood. Of course in the late 1800s "excitants" included such exotic fare as cloves, vinegar, pickles, candy, eggs and pork. Thankfully, to protect children from the evils of peppermint, anti-masturbation dietitians invented the opposite of tasty food, namely cold breakfast cereal. Grape-Nuts, and later Corn Flakes, were specially designed to be non-stimulating alternatives to "food."
"Shhhh ... Let Daddy Grape-Nuts take care of those sexual urges."
So when you would see ads for cereals like Grape-Nuts back then (invented by CW Post, a competitor of Kellogg from the same era), you would see innuendos about how it won't "heat the blood" the way other foods do. The ads also boasted that it was "predigested," because if you're trying to remain cool and unexcited, clearly you should model your diet after a baby bird. Mr. Kellogg, meanwhile, believed eating his "corn flakes" would do the trick. If he was smart, he'd have advertised his cereal as the only way to prevent forceful circumcision, without anesthesia, followed by a 24-hour masturbation watch. That's some pretty strong damned motivation right there.
Also corn flakes make terrible lubrication.
Another inventor of "food to make you stop jerking off" was Reverend Sylvester Graham, of Graham cracker fame. His cold breakfast option to suppress sexual urges was originally called Honey Biscuits (which ironically would be a great porn name). It was specifically recommended as an important part of the diet for those recovering from masturbation for the same reason as the cereals: a bland taste and ease of digestion designed to provide nutrition without any hint of stimulation.
The crackers in 1916, before they started to get a whole bunch of unfortunate product placement.
Graham crackers were also sold as the perfect food to help children gain weight and thus have the strength necessary to resist temptation (and this was even before kids started eating them with chocolate and marshmallows).
"Our research suggests that fat kids don't get laid. Gentlemen, I have an idea ..."
And given that chocolate was thought to be an aphrodisiac, this made s'mores an existential battle for a Boy Scout's soul. But more on the Boy Scouts later.
Bathing is one of those things that seems to go in and out of fashion totally at random. For instance the Romans were big on bathing, but early Christians like Saint Benedict thought it should be avoided ("baths shall seldom be permitted"), partly because they thought Roman-style bathhouses tended to encourage spontaneous orgies. The anti-bathing trend was continued in early America, based on the fact that the nudity involved could not lead to anything good (including "French moral corruption and the sexual license suggested by nudity").
Which is ridiculous, as everyone knows French people don't bathe.
But the tide turned in favor of baths by the end of the 19th century. Yep, the same time period we keep returning to, the very climax of the War on Masturbation. It's not a coincidence.
It was the fear of masturbation that drove doctors and preachers alike to recommend daily baths, particularly for children. The theory was similar to the one behind circumcision -- if you didn't keep the genitals clean, they would itch, and soon little Billy would be scratching a little too much. Guess who weighed in on the subject? Why, it's John Harvey Kellogg again. In Plain Facts for Old and Young:
"A daily bath is indispensable to health under almost all circumstances; for patients of this class [masturbators] it is especially necessary ... Sun baths, electric baths, spray, plunge and other forms of bath, are of greatest value to those suffering from the effects of indiscretions."
We just find the judging eyes of Mr. Quackers enough to stop us dead.
But he certainly wasn't the only one. Sylvanus Stall's What a Young Man Ought to Know (1904) says:
"But we must here make some helpful suggestions to those who seek to avoid this form of sexual weakness ... First, cleanliness of heart, of thought, imagination and of purpose must be reinforced also by cleanliness of body. Every man, woman and child should bathe at least once or twice a week. In addition to the ordinary weekly bath, there should also be added the daily morning sponge or hand-bath."
Make sure you get thoroughly lathered up for your "hand-bath."
The 1909 YMCA manual From Youth into Manhood added:
"Here are a few rules that will help the young man who wishes to overcome the habit just described [masturbation] ... Arise three-quarters of an hour before breakfast every morning, take a cold sponge or shower bath."
Meanwhile, the Boy Scout manual Scouting for Boys mentions a cold shower or bath as a good masturbation cure. Bathing wasn't just in again, it was now being thrown around as a preventative medical treatment that one avoided at his own masturbatory risk.
They would have suggested cleansing the brain, too,
if they could find a way to keep the bleach from pouring out of your ears.
Wait, why were the YMCA and Boy Scouts writing about masturbation? Well ...